Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review of A Flock of Seagulls' "Ascension"

I posted this review a little while ago on the Sputnik Music website. And for Long Island fans who aren't aware, Mike Score's version of A Flock of Seagulls will be headlining on Long Island next Saturday, August 4, at the Tilles Center, joined by five other '80s band.

Review Summary: A Flock of Seagull's soaring new wave classics get a fresh orchestral makeover.

Now that many of the rock heroes of the sixties and seventies are either dying off or becoming too old to effectively play their instruments anymore, a strange new trend seems to be developing -- orchestral albums made by bands of the eighties-new-wave genre. While this seems less intuitive than, say, pairing an orchestra with seventies progressive rock (a genre that often featured a certain amount of classical musical influence anyway), it's actually working out OK. Last year, former Ultravox frontman released his Orchestrated album, which rose higher in the British charts than anything he's released since 1988; and earlier this year, Erasure released World Beyond, an orchestral version of their 2017 World Be Gone LP, which some listeners preferred to the original. Now comes Ascension, an orchestral rock album by the British 80's synth-pop band A Flock of Seagulls. And once again, the orchestral/new-wave blend comes off way better than you'd have any right to expect.

Part of the reason for this is that A Flock of Seagulls was always a more sophisticated band than the casual '80s dancehall kid might have been aware of. Yes, their look at the time was kind of silly, and made some people not take them seriously. But one listen to their 1982 eponymous LP, or there 1983 follow-up Listen is enough to make you realize that this is more than just some light little pop-singles band. Their 1984 concept album The Story of a Young Heart, while less commercially successful than the other two, is no slouch either.

Ascension reunites the classic Flock lineup of those first three albums (Mike Score on lead vocals, keyboards and guitar, his brother Ali Score on drums, Paul Reynolds on lead guitar, and Frank Maudsley on bass), and pairs them with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The bad news is that the four Flock members were never in the same studio at the same time for the recording of this LP. (They're also not back together for a tour. The Flock that plays out live these days features Mike Score and a bunch of other guys). The good news is that they still sound pretty terrific.

Ascension features eleven of the band's greatest hits, plus one new song, all done up in a new orchestral arrangement. Five of the songs were originally recorded on their first LP, and four are from Listen. Only "The More You Live, the More You Love" was taken from The Story of a Young Heart, but that turns out to be one of the best tracks on the new LP. All of the Flock's best-known songs are here, including "Space Age Love Song", "I Ran", "Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)" and "Telecommunication".

Flock always created luxuriant musical soundscapes, powered in no small part by the textures of Reynolds' guitar work. Their songs have also always had a science fiction/outer space quality to them. Both of these characteristics of their music are well served here by the addition of the orchestra. As for the vocals, upon first listen to this LP, Mike Score's voice sounded different than I remembered it. As the album wore on, though, it became more and more familiar.

My complaints about Ascension are fairly minor ones. The first is the instrumental title track. As the one "new" song on the LP, I was hoping for great things (especially since they named the album after it). Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. It starts out in fine symphonic fashion, with music that is both dramatic and pretty. However, the whole track only lasts for a minute and twelve seconds; and halfway through it, familiar chords pop up, and it morphs into what is obviously nothing more than a grand intro for "Wishing". I love "Wishing" as much as anyone, but for being the only new number here, and the title track to boot, it felt like a bit of a ripoff. My second criticism is of the song "Man Made", the last track on the album. The arrangement is lovely, exceptthat there's this really annoying synthetic tinkling noise that goes on in the background for the entire length of the song. It's distracting, and serves to spoil an otherwise solid track.

Still, these are minor critiques. Overall, I found the music on Ascension to be lush and exciting. The addition of the orchestra helps to bring a fresh sound to this group of songs that have been around for about thirty-five years now. The album is strong enough to make me cautiously interested in hearing other symphonic new wave experiments. As for Flock of Seagulls, I'd love to see these four men get back together in earnest to create some new music. Ascension reminded me of just how excellent much of their old music was.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars